Politico: GOP leaders hatch trade workaround


House Speaker John Boehner and Republican leaders are moving to revive President Barack Obama’s beleaguered trade agenda with an elaborate procedural workaround that was quickly greeted with skepticism among some Democrats.

[Reposted from Politico  |  Manu Raju and Jack Sherman  |  Juen 16, 2015]

Under the emerging plan, the House would vote on a bill that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a sweeping trade deal with Pacific Rim countries, sending it to the Senate for final approval. To alleviate Democratic concerns, the Senate then would amend a separate bill on trade preferences to include Trade Adjustment Assistance, a worker aid program that Republicans oppose but that House Democrats have blocked to gain leverage in the negotiations over fast-track.

The leaders’ behind-the-scenes machinations are an attempt to allow both bills — TAA and the fast-track measure known as Trade Promotion Authority — to move to Obama’s desk separately, sidestepping the objections of House Democrats that stalled the package last week. The idea, which has been discussed among top congressional leaders and the White House, would be tantamount to a dare to pro-trade Democrats in both chambers to vote it down.

The plans are fluid and could change. But multiple congressional leaders, speaking anonymously to candidly describe their strategy, said they felt this was the only hope to reverse the trade package’s flagging fortunes.

Across the Capitol, however, some pro-trade Senate Democrats were wary. Their concern is that fast-track trade authority would pass both chambers of Congress, but that the Republican House would then reject TAA. The aid program for workers who lose their jobs to trade has been the asking price for many Democrats and even some Republicans to back Obama’s free trade push.

“It’s highly unlikely I can support TPA without TAA,” said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, one of the staunchest Democratic supporters of the trade package.

The dueling dilemmas underscore the steep climb the White House and GOP leaders face in trying to persuade recalcitrant Democrats to advance a package that would likely lead to the enactment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation agreement that would bind 40 percent of the global economy and be the largest free trade deal in history. After a series of calls between Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Boehner, supporters of the trade deal were scrambling to find a way to pass a bill in the House after its stunning defeat at the hands of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week.

“It’s going to be shared responsibility to get this done,” said Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, a leading Democratic supporter of TPA who met with Boehner on Tuesday. “It’s going to require bipartisan effort, both sides willing to cooperate a little bit more than what we’ve had so far.”

Last month, the Senate passed a trade bill that included both TAA and TPA, with 48 Republicans and 14 Democrats in favor. That means no matter what the House eventually passes, Obama and GOP leaders cannot lose more than two Senate Democrats if they want to overcome a filibuster and move a modified bill to the president’s desk.

Sen. Patty Murray could carry great weight. The Washington state Democrat spent significant political capital to help muscle the bill out of the Senate last month. Trade is crucial to her the economy of her state, which houses corporate giants such as Boeing.

But Murray said Friday that an extension of TAA — a 40-year-old program set to expire at the end of September — must be part of any package in order to win her support.

“My position is really clear: We passed TPA and TAA in the Senate,” said Murray, the only member of her party’s elected leadership to back the trade package. “We expect the House to do the same.”

For the 14 Senate Democrats who voted last month for a bill that included TAA and TPA, the frustration is palpable. They endured weeks of criticism from their left flank but now are witnessing their colleagues across the Capitol scuttle the plan by withholding support for TAA, a program virtually all of them support.

The Democratic senators had hoped the House would accept the Senate plan without changes and end the party’s divisive trade debate once and for all. And few expected House Democrats to block TAA, which has long been a bedrock priority for their party.

“Cynical,” one Senate Democrat privately said Tuesday of the move by House Democrats.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who backed the trade bill, said, “We’ve always felt like that [TPA and TAA] really need to move together.”

But he added that the failure of the trade bill so far, combined with other matters that lawmakers have failed to act on, is “not sending a good message about Congress.”

Last week, Pelosi surprised much of Washington by saying she’d oppose TAA as a way to prevent the trade promotion bill from moving forward. She later suggested that if Congress were to approve a long-term highway funding bill, which has long been elusive, she could envision the fast-track trade bill passing the House.

The question now for Pelosi and other House progressives is whether they would vote down the trade preferences bill, which includes a package to encourage African countries to open their markets and is also meant to foster trade between the U.S. and Haiti. That plan has strong support among Democrats.

Boehner is not relying on Pelosi this time to move the agenda. He quietly met with pro-trade Democrats in his office Tuesday to pitch them on his plan. Among the Democratic lawmakers who attended were Reps. Jim Himes of Connecticut, Derek Kilmer of Washington, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Jared Polis of Colorado, John Delaney of Maryland, Kind, Gregory Meeks of New York, Gerry Connolly of Virginia and Henry Cuellar of Texas.

(Cuellar approached a POLITICO reporter before the unpublicized meeting and said in jest, “I wasn’t here.”)

The House Democrats didn’t immediately sign off on Boehner’s plan. Many of those Democrats would like to see fast-track receive a vote before TAA in the House.

Boehner and McConnell are still working out details of the plan. Late Tuesday, the House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters for floor debate, postponed consideration of the proposal.

Since Republicans largely oppose TAA, viewing it as a wasteful government program, pro-trade forces have been struggling to find a way forward after 144 House Democrats voted last week to block it. Republicans later took up the trade promotion bill, which was approved by a 219-211 vote. That was a symbolic gesture aimed to show there was sufficient support to pass the fast-track plan, which would allow Congress to approve or reject, but not amend, the 12-nation trade deal.

On Tuesday, the House voted 236-189 to extend the deadline to take up the TAA bill again until July 30.

Since the current trade adjustment program runs through Sept. 30, Republicans and the White House hope that Democrats in Congress feel pressure to approve an extension now, rather than risk having the program lapse in a matter of months.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who co-authored the Senate trade plan, would not say whether he would support GOP efforts to separate them.

“I’m not speculating on any House scenario, but what I’ve said is both of these programs are extremely important,” said Wyden, who has faced enormous pressure back home on the issue.

Similarly, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another trade supporter, wouldn’t discuss how she’d come down if the House indeed follows through on its latest strategy.

“I think the problem is most people don’t understand out there … [that] the TPA is just giving the president the authority to go ahead and negotiate a trade agreement in what is the largest trading theater in the world today,” Feinstein said Tuesday.

Others were reacting cautiously.

“I strongly support trade, but we’ve also got to have trade adjustment,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat who also voted for the trade package. “That’s always been the deal.”

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